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Compact Home-Theater Speakers

I read in a recent Ask Scott post ("Building a System") that you thought full-range speakers in the system under discussion would be overkill for watching movies. One of the reasons for using bookshelf or compact speakers for the front left/right channels—tonal matching—was also highlighted as an appealing quality in Home Theater's review of B&W 805 compact speaker system (seen here).

I am looking to set up a surround system for the sole purpose of watching movies (no music) in a 12x12 room. As a general rule, do you recommend a system with matching front and surround speakers over a system with full-range fronts and compact surrounds, knowing there will be a sub either way? Most of the systems I see reviewed in magazines as well as all the recommended systems at my favorite local hi-fi store match large floorstanding front speakers with small surrounds, but your advice seems to contradict this.

Johann Dutton

In my view, tonal matching of the speakers in a surround system is of paramount importance. Also important, however, is that the front speakers should be able to reach down somewhat below 80Hz, which is the most common crossover point to the subwoofer, and not all compact speakers can go that low. As long as the front LRs can do that—and they match tonally with the center and surrounds—I think compact speakers all around with a subwoofer is a fine way to go for movies. In fact, full-range speakers for the front left and right are generally a waste of money if you're only going to listen to movie soundtracks.

Why do so many authorities recommend full-range speakers for the front left and right? Probably because most people also listen to music, and many audiophiles prefer the sound of two full-range speakers without a subwoofer. So putting full-range speakers in the front LR positions allows the system to do double duty.

On the other hand, many floorstanding speakers are not truly full-range—that is, only the most expensive models can reproduce frequencies all the way down to 20Hz—so in most cases, you're going to need a subwoofer with floorstanders anyway. Many companies make floorstanders that tonally match their centers and surround speakers, so in the end, it comes down to personal preference and the amount of floor space you have available for speakers.

If you have an A/V question, please send it to askscottwilkinson@gmail.com.

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